One could be forgiven for thinking that a condition known as “tennis elbow” applies only to tennis players. Such a notion would seem to make sense; after all, professional tennis players heavily utilize their right elbows (or left elbows if they are southpaws) during tennis matches. You don’t need to be playing on the United States Tennis Pro circuit to encounter tennis elbow, however. Those who rely especially hard on their arms to earn a living can easily suffer from frequent bouts of elbow pain. If you have been experiencing frequent discomfort in your elbow as of late, you might have developed a case of tennis elbow without even picking up a tennis racket.
How the Elbow Gets Hurt
Some types of injuries are known for the speed at which they occur; ACL tears, which strike the joint between the femur and tibia bones, take only a few seconds to leave their mark. Tennis elbow, in contrast, can develop over the span of several months or even years. The patient begins to feel symptoms of tennis elbow when small tears appear in the elbow tendon, a tissue that connects the surrounding muscles to your elbow joint. Such tears typically occur after the elbow tendon has been consistently overused. Essentially, the tendon buckles under the immense workload place upon it.
Tennis players, of course, must move their elbows virtually every time they swing their rackets. What may come as a bit of a surprise is that other professions are also vulnerable to tennis elbow. In fact, a mere 5% of tennis elbow cases involve patients that injured their arm while playing tennis. Jobs that require the wrist to be repeatedly turned and twisted can inflict much wear and tear on the elbow tendon, to the point that the tendon ruptures under the constant pressure. People employed as painters, cooks, construction workers, plumbers and butchers are among the most susceptible to tennis elbow. These professions generally tend to skew male, helping to explain why men up the majority of tennis elbow patients.
After the first small tear(s) emerge in the elbow tendon, the patient will subsequently feel pain in his or her elbow. As the tears grow in size and/or new tears form, this pain will steadily increase in severity. This pain is often exacerbated when the patient grips an object or twists his or her wrist. Additionally, tennis elbow can make firmly gripping various objects much more difficult.
Repairing the Elbow Tendon
Upon diagnosing a patient with tennis elbow, a doctor will usually recommend a combination of physical therapy and pain relievers as treatment. For pain medication, patients usually take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which can usually be purchased without a prescription. The patient is also encouraged to apply ice or cold packs to the damaged elbow. To speed up the healing process, a patient should ice the injured elbow several times per day for about 10 to 15 minutes at a time. Not surprisingly, doctors frequently urge tennis elbow patients to rest their elbows, and refrain from activities that can worsen the condition.
When it comes to physically rehabbing the torn elbow tendon, a patient has several options. The proceeding list details some exercises that are frequently used to rebuild and repair elbow tendons.
Wrist Extensor Stretches – Given that your elbow is affected every time you turn your wrist, it makes sense to strengthen your wrist and forearm muscles while repairing a bum elbow. Weak forearm muscles place additional strain on the elbow, upping the chances of injury.
True to its name, this particular exercise works the wrist extensors, a group of muscles located on the top side of the forearms. To perform a wrist extensor stretch, lift the afflicted arm in front of your body. Curl this arm’s hand in an upward direction. Grab this same hand with your other hand, and slowly bend it further back towards the body.
Wrist Flexor Stretch – This second exercise is performed exactly like a wrist extensor stretch, except that the damaged arm’s hand should be positioned with its palm facing upward. Once again, the forearm’s muscles are stretched with the aid of you free hand, though this time you should pull your hand downward. The goal of this exercise is to strengthen the flexor muscles, which reside on the underside of the forearms.
Wrist Curls – As with stretches, strength training exercises aimed at bolstering the forearms should focus on both the extensor and flexor muscles. Using a lightweight dumb bell, place the arm with the tennis elbow on a table parallel to your body. Your hand should be hanging over the edge to of the table’s surface, with the wrist positioned on the edge.
To perform a normal wrist curl, grip the dumb bell with your palm facing downward. Slowly lift your hand upwards and towards your body, and then carefully return to your jumping off point. Reverse wrist curls, appropriately enough, call for flipping the forearm so that the palm of the hand faces the ceiling. As with regular curls, your wrist should be planted on the edge of the table. Steadily lower your hand in a downward direction, and then raise your hand back to its starting position. To ensure that one wrist does not become noticeably bigger than the other, it’s best to perform curls on both wrists.
Hand Squeeze – For this technique, you will need either a soft tennis ball (how ironic!) or a rolled up pair of socks. Place one of these objects in the palm of your hand, and proceed to squeeze it for roughly ten seconds. After resting for about ten seconds or so, give the sphere-shaped object another squeeze. Perform 8 to 12 repetitions of this exercise, and then switch over to your other hand.
Wrist Deviation – While the word “deviation” probably brings back painful memories of algebra class, you can rest assured that this technique is far from complicated. Your hand will once more be placed over the edge of a table; unlike with wrist curls, however, your hand will positioned sideways, as if you were about to shake hands with someone. While keeping your fingers pressed closely together, begin repeatedly moving your hand up and down in a controlled manner. Aim for two sets of 8 to 12 repetitions for each hand.
Even after the injury has fully healed, patients can prevent further elbow problems by continuing to perform these techniques. It should be stressed that patients are often advised to begin rehabilitation exercises only after their elbow pain has subsided.
The recovery period for tennis elbow can vary widely, and be shortened or lengthened by a number of factors. Patients with relatively minor tears in their elbow tendons, for instance, recover faster than those with larger ruptures. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to determine when you elbow has fully repaired itself. Patients who have made a full recovery from tennis elbow generally meet the following criteria:
- No discernable pain from gripping objects
- No discernable pain from placing weight on elbow
- No signs of swelling in elbow area
- No pain from moving or flexing the elbow